Sometimes when I get depressed I say stupid things. For example, I called my father, not that we have a good relationship, but I called him nonetheless, and over the course of an awkward Q & A about how life on the farm was going, I casually mentioned I was thinking about moving home.
“No shit,” my father’s tired voice rose from neutral to what sounded like my grandfather’s high-pitched southern yodel, half ironic and half serious. It made me feel like a kid again.
Already I felt like I was getting ahead of myself and my room began to turn. I sat down on my bed. I could hear my roommates, a couple, yelling at each other in the kitchen. Their little brown Weiner dog was barking and barking. I felt drunk but I was sober. My father’s silence was like a rock in my ear.
“Yeah,” I said, “I’m thinking about it,” and we talked for a few minutes about setting up a visit. I was working two jobs, selling light bulbs by day and washing dishes in a pool hall by night, so it was hard to get time off. But we made something work for September, right as the season started to change. The visit was to last three days.
I caught a red eye out of Seattle and landed in Louisville at 6 AM. He picked me up in his Bronco, a big, red, muddy machine that sat high on a self-installed lift kit. I hadn’t slept, I was shaking from caffeine, and the rattling of the door, the radio, the barreling engine, and the wind hurtling through the soft top was sending bright orange bangs through my head.
My father didn’t say “hi, how are you” or “how was the flight” or anything like that. My father didn’t ask questions. That wasn’t his style. He just drove. As he drove, he sat forward and checked his mirrors. He passed any car or truck on I-65 going less than seventy. He also punched through country radio stations and randomly broke out into ear-piercing “yeeeaahhh”s and slapped the steering wheel with the beat of the song.
His antics made me smile. That was his way of trying to get me to talk, to acknowledge the reason I was in the Bronco. He wanted me to say I was giving up Seattle. He probably wanted me to say leaving home was wrong. He kept looking at me with his silly grin and going “yeaaaahhh.”
We got to the farm just as the sun started to rise over the treeline. Dogs, barking and snapping at the front tires, chased us up the gravel driveway and waited with wagging tails at the driver’s side door. Pale mist floated above the grass. Chickens pecked about. The old house leaned on the hill like a tombstone, gray and weathered. He’d stopped at the McDonald’s window and bought two large coffees and a bag of bacon, egg, and cheese biscuits and we were sitting in the cab chewing the garbage deliciously while the dogs panted and yapped. I hadn’t eaten meat in three years. The juicy rubber caught in my teeth and wouldn’t go down. I did it to show my father I would try.
I said, “House is still there.” My father had always talked about tearing the house down. No one had lived there since Nanny passed away.
My father said, “Yeah, I ain’t had the time or the heart. Plus, I figured maybe someday it’d come in handy.” He looked at me.
My father’s big oak desk from when he was a kid was still in his old room up on the second floor. Big, heavy, solid as marble. It was an amazing thing. A real desk, made of real wood. I could see myself, bourbon and ice, writing by night at that desk. Line the walls with esoteric bookshelves and black-and-white photographs. Make my room my home. That’s what I could do. I could come back, revive the old house, make it mine.
My father belched and hung his leg out the Bronco. He tore a biscuit sandwich to pieces and tossed the pieces to the dogs. He laughed and smiled while the dogs tumbled over the pieces. Then he said, “Let’s take a ride. I want to show you around.” I followed him to the shed, where the side-by-side, an orange and black beetle with four wheels and an engine, was waiting for us. The dogs followed. He said, “Best thing I ever bought.” He fired the engine. The dogs barked and leapt on hind legs and spun in circles. He backed out of the shed. Spit gravel as he bolted into high gear. Flung forward. I hung onto a black rail so as not to fly out. He’d taken the doors off, to make it easier getting in and out, and there were no seatbelts. That was my father.
And there I was, again, in the Old South–riding around the fields with my father. We fed sheep. We looked at fence row. We talked about the fish in the pond. He complained about the dogs, who went everywhere we went with their tongues hanging out. It was nice. Over two thousand miles and eight hours later, a delay in Chicago, no sleep, wired on coffee and anxiety, it surprised me how much I felt at home. I figured working the land wouldn’t be the worst life. At least I’d be outside like people were supposed to be. Not washing dishes and selling light bulbs, living paycheck to paycheck. People have always worked in the shit. Maybe that’s what I needed.
“The sky in Seattle is made of glass,” I said. Why’d I say that? The thought popped from my mouth. My father grunted. Waited. I said, “Gray, muddy, low glass. I always feel like I’m in a window. Looking through this dirty, purple tint.” I felt like such a fool. Then, to make matters worse, he put his hand on mine. That sobered me up.
I don’t know what we did next. The sun started to rise, lifting all that dew off the pasture, and things got humid and hazy.
My father lifted his boot off the gas and we drifted to a stop in front of a muddy patch of concrete walled in by three gray slabs of cement. No roof, the morning poured right in, and one unfinished wall opened onto a pasture. I felt like I’d arrived at an unfinished tomb. In the middle of the this lot sat a silver hay ring stuffed with bright yellow straw. On top of the straw stood three little black goats that stopped chewing and stared at us with their heads lifted and ears folded back. More goats began to draw up to the electric fence and stared with round black eyes, ears folded back, heads cocked sideways.
“The Bulgarian will be here later this afternoon,” said my father. Little clicks fizzled in the engine. “He came back in the spring,” my father went on in a calm drawl. “Brought a trailer and bought ten wethers. Paid me cash. Hundred a head.” He pointed at me and went, “That’s good.”
I had heard him and I hadn’t heard him. I didn’t like that he called the man ‘the Bulgarian’ as if he were some kind of oddity, but I knew if I pointed that out he’d call me a snowflake and I’d call him a racist and then we’d be fighting. I didn’t want fighting. I couldn’t handle fighting this time. I was too lost. I didn’t know up from down. I’d lose, like always.
My father let a out deep breath, lifted his hat, and ran his fingers over his scalp. He said, “It’s gonna be a pay day,” and hefted himself out of the side-by-side, which rocked like a boat under his weight. I got out too. The Johnson grass swished. Cold wet soaked my leg. “Grab that burlap bag of feed out the back, would ya,” said my father.
When I had my back turned I heard a soft thudding clank, the sound of a bell, followed by my father’s heavy low grunting. Heh Heh Heh went my father. “That fucker,” my father said. I turned around. The goats that had been at the gate, about six of them, were nowhere to be seen. Then I realized they retreated and were now gathered in a mixed up, staring circle. At the mouth of the gate stood a goat totally unlike the little wethers, which were squat, pot-bellied, and castrated. This new goat had great curved horns and broad shoulders, a slim strong body of white snowy patches mounted atop skinny chocolate legs with white tufts at the knees. He held his head high, amber beard dropping thickly under his chest. His one ear stuck straight out to the side like his listening was a lightning rod. His other ear drooped, flopped, with great laziness. Then with sleepy, half closed eyes the goat regarded my father and I like we were idiots.
“That’s Woody,” said my father, his smile twirling upward.
I sat the sack of feed on the grass and stepped up to the electric fence for a better look. Woody was a pretty goat. But the more I tried to find what was so funny, the more I started to notice an unusual smile strapped across Woody’s muzzle. That’s when my father’s laughter kicked up a notch.
His man’s voice rose to a giggling flute. “Boy, he’s a mess. Ever since I took him from the mama goats, he’s been an ornery son’of’a’bitch. He’ll charge you. Ram you. Trip you. Knock you down. Kick. Bite. He’ll drink his own piss. He’ll suck himself off. He’ll corn hole any of these sorry bastards. Look at ‘em,” my father locked eyes with Woody, who gave an uninterested shake of his head, which caused the bell around his neck to clank.
It was such a battery of information that I could only stare at the goat, who continued to fix his sleepy eyes on me. I guess Woody was also a smart goat, because he turned broadside for us to see him better. It was then that I saw what my father found so funny, something horrific I hadn’t noticed at first, the reason he was named Woody. It was the prominence of his goat organ. Horny animals are a fact of farm life. But this goat seemed possessed with goals and ideas. Then I realized my father claimed this goat held auto-erotic tendencies. I had no reason to doubt him but how could I not exclaim, “Wait—Woody sucks his own dick?”
“Sure did. And it ain’t right.” My father’s red face hee-hawed through the fields. The bristles on Woody’s back stood up. Woody clicked his hooves one-two. He snorted and shook his head.
The grass and straw crunched under my father’s boots as he stepped toward the electric fence. “You still a vegetarian or vegan or whatever you call it?”
“Yeah,” I replied.
He grunted. “Well, I hate to tell you this, but Woody and five of these wethers,” he swept his hand, “are going with the Bulgarian, along with the two lambs in the chicken pen.” My father unlatched the top rope, dropped it to the gravel where contact with the earth caused the electric to click-click-click. “Grab that sack of feed and c’mon,” my father said. He threw his leg over the two lower ropes and then pirouetted with his other leg and hip like he was roundhouse kicking some assailant in the face.
“Not bad for an old man,” I said, stupidly, to try and handle.
The little weathers scrambled, bleating. They were cute in their own way. It pained me to know their destiny. I guess that was the reality of making a living on a farm. Even though I didn’t like the killing, my father impressed the hell out of me. He, an old man, was holding onto the farm when everything about this nation wants the land to belong to big industry. But I had to wonder: would the farm last? Could I keep moving it forward? Could I do what needed to be done, like raise the knife against an animal?
Woody lifted his head and trotted toward me. He leaned his muzzle into my side and began to rub up and down, like a cat wanting attention. I thought how cute. But I was in for a surprise. Petting, Woody’s coat wasn’t smooth and silky. It was slimy sandpaper. Touching him burned my brain. Allergies. Up and down Woody rubbed, and I patted him once more, hoping he’d go away. But he couldn’t be satisfied.
The oily bristles started to turn my hand red and fluffy. Woody’s grinding got rougher. He tipped on his back legs, shifted his weight to the front of his skull. I had to brace my foot back. Then it dawned on me. Woody was trying to push me over.
“What’s he doing?” I called to my father in a panic.
He was in the shed on his hands and knees rooting through the hay on the ground, enveloped in a white dusty cloud. “Wants you to smell like piss,” he hooted.
Woody. That deceptive, devilish goat. I shoved him with both hands and walked straight ahead. Then I was face first—breathless—eye level with round black bulbs of goat shit and browned strands of hay. I looked up. Woody stood over me, head cocked, weird smile. I pushed myself up. He bucked me down. I tried again. He bowled me over.
“I told ya!” my father exclaimed from the shed. “He’s an ornery som’bitch. You gotta fight with’em! Take’em by the horns. He don’t like that.”
So I flipped over and caught Woody’s horns as he tried to buck me again. The force almost knocked me over. I locked my boots back, expecting a fight, but the goat went slack. His shoulders dropped. His neck craned downward. He flicked his tail. His horns felt like dirty, ribbed slugs.
“There you go! Push his head down! Don’t let’em up.”
I put all my weight onto Woody’s head. His muzzle hit the ground.
When he didn’t make a sound or even twitch, I thought I had him beat. I let up.
Then Woody went crazy.
He yanked his head back, twisted his neck, bucked to the side, and reared back on hind legs. His head rose to my head. He released the tight bolts of his jaw and barred his buck row of cornteeth and undulated his slippery red tongue like a giant earthworm, at once chomping at my shirt and hissing in consternation. He rolled his neck in twisted circles, tore to the left, ripped to the right, trying everything to fling me loose. But I wouldn’t let go. I could see my father watching with his arms folded, smiling and laughing.
But the goat tired out and started letting out horrible bleats of pain, high, lonely cries, the wailing of an animal that knows it’s going to die. It sounded like Woody’s real voice. I let him go. Woody staggered backward. He shook off like a wet dog and retreated to the shed where the wethers had their heads stuffed in the feeding trough.
My father came over in tears. He said, “Let me wipe the goat shit off your back.”
I said, “Back off.”
I climbed over the fence. I went behind the side-by-side. I turned to the big green world. The gray road bended around our mailbox, then dipped into the hill. Cattle grazed pasture on the other side of the road. Sheep grazed pasture on our side of the road. The sky was big and blue and fleecy. There was a red barn, a trailer, and a pond. Then our house on the hill, the sun beating it hard. It was a citadel of blinding white light. It looked like it was about to go up in flames, and that was exactly what I wanted. The whole place in flames.
My father erupted again. Woody bolted from the shed, on the tail end of a pretty gray wether that was bleating uncontrollably and unable to move its stubby legs fast enough to escape Woody’s advances.
My father’s jaw hung open, his face red and merry. He pointed at Woody as he laughed, but I couldn’t help but feel like the laughter was pointed at me.
“Poor Woody,” I said. “Why are you getting rid of him?” That cut his joy. He turned defensive.
“He’s bred all the mamas he can breed and I’m tired of putting up with his bullshit. I’m being offered cash money to take a problem off my hands.” My father pointed at a blank faced goat, “That right there will be the new head of the herd.”
“So you’re just tossing Woody away?”
“The Bulgarian wants them for his people,” he said. “For ceremony or something. They get together and have these big barbecues. I think he’s Muslim.” Then my father found his smile again. “Woody is going to meet Allah. Get his virgins.”
I said, “Jesus dad.”
“You can’t say shit like that.”
“Do you even know the guy’s name?”
“It’s Ernie.” Then my father, red faced, said, “You come back from that left coast and everything has to be—”
“You know it’s wrong,” I said.
He caught himself, hung his head. “All I’m saying is Woody is going to heaven. It’s better this way, with the Bulgarian. At market they take a cut. You pay taxes. And it’s pretty much a non-stop conveyor belt until the end. This way, it’s less stressful. They go home, get a meal. A week goes by.” He didn’t need to say what happened after that week. I’d never seen him so on his heels. Honestly, I couldn’t think of a time when he explained himself to me. I’d always been too afraid to call him out. He was still explaining when something cut him off—the screech of metal as tire left the road and hit our gravel, crunching and kicking dust. The truck was red, an F-150 Powerstroke. Diesel rumbled, heavy, as it climbed the hill, rounded the lot, and came to rest under the oak tree. Hooked to the back of the truck was a red iron cage on wheels. I guess you’d call it a trailer, but to me it looked like a cage on wheels.
“Well shit,” my father said. “He’s early. Come on.”
We forgot—well, I didn’t forget—our difference and got in the side-by-side. The dogs howled.
The man waited with his arms folded, back to the cab door. The man wore a neon mesh jersey and white carpenter pants stained with grease and mud. He didn’t look like a Bulgarian. He looked like any other middle aged white guy in rural Kentucky. I shook his hand. He had smart, callous hands. He smiled and clasped my father’s hands with both of his great paws and gave three good up-and-down’s. There’s nothing like watching two men square off over goats. My father and the Bulgarian faced each other with their hands on their hips, talk-laughing. The Bulgarian pointed to the chicken coop, my father wheeled his finger in circles to explain how the Bulgarian needed to get back on the road to get to the goat pen. He listened carefully and nodded as my father explained.
My father slapped me on the belly, then snapped his fingers and pointed, “Alright, let’s round up some goats and sheep.”
“I’m not doing that,” I said.
The Bulgarian lurched forward, choked the laugh. He bunched his fingers and turned the other way, eyes tight. He looked at my father. The Bulgarian pointed at me. My father screwed his face and shrugged.
So what made me decide to help these two men?
It was their bellies. They bulged toward each other, trembled with the same laugh. The laugher showed me I was a tourist in my own home. Because if you can’t do the work, then what are you? Worse than nothing. You’re a betrayal. I’d violated the family line. I’d cut the cord that made me from my father. That strange, grotesque umbilical cord called masculinity. To them, I was about as good as one of those castrated goats that was about to go in the Bulgarian’s cage. I had to prove myself.
So, “Fine,” I said.
The Bulgarian backed the cage to the mouth of the chicken pen, a big square yard, and we went in. The lambs looked up, saw us for what we were, folded their ears back, and ran.
“Drive them,” the Bulgarian said to me, flailing his arms toward the corner. Shock screamed from his eyes. His arms became bolts of lightning, tense arrows.
The lambs trotted together, then split left and right. My father on the left, me in the middle, the Bulgarian on the right. We singled one out and went at it like a trident. The little white lamb bolted for the gap between me and my father, but we squeezed together, confusing it, pushing it further backward toward the corner.
Meanwhile, the Bulgarian brought over a long link of fence. About ten feet long, four feet high.
“Grab,” the Bulgarian shouted.
I didn’t know what he meant but I grabbed the steel end. The Bulgarian yanked forward. The steel dragged in the crabgrass. Then I understood. We were a walking wall. My dad—crouching low, arms full wing, his legs spread like a linebacker—guarded the flank. He shouted, “Hey! Hey!” as we walled the lamb into the corner. Back, back, back, its head twisted up, down, around, until it fell over on itself in sheer terror. My father grabbed the white scruff with one hand and pulled its tail with the other. Like that he walked it to the Bulgarian’s cage.
We did the same with the other lamb, which leapt sideways and bawwed and ducked and charged. It sped around the oak trees. It leapt over the pile of branches. Just when we thought we had the little one cornered it managed to slip through the slightest gap in our wall. Then the three of us spread out, proceeded forward like a machine. It had learned from the other one. Don’t go toward the corner. We still got him in the end.
“Whoo-wee!” my father howled, panting and sweating.
“Yeah!” the Bulgarian said. A congratulatory mood settled between them. The Bulgarian dipped his eyes on me with approval. I was alright.
Next we visited the goats.
Woody stood at the head of the pack.
“You want at’em?” my father joked with the Bulgarian.
“No, no,” he shook his head. “I’ll wait here.” He pointed at the electric fence, the gate to his cage.
“What about you?” He slapped my back. “Go get Woody.”
“You go get him,” I said.
The Bulgarian laughed. My father smirked. Neither of them would look at me.
“We want to see this,” my father said. “C’mon.”
I stared at Woody. Woody titled his head. The bell clanked.
I grabbed Woody by the horns. He bucked my hand loose and charged. I spun out of the way just before he crushed my rib cage. About four paces off, he spun around and came at me again. I jumped out of the way, but he was spry. He hooked my ankle on the pass and sent me spinning. I didn’t fall, but I lost my balance. I ran. I made for the hay ring. Woody on my ass, we went around two, three times. He-he-he-he! He-he-he-he! The laughter thundered over Woody’s clapping hooves. His bell clanking was like clapping hands and cheering. Screams was all I could hear. It’s all I could see.
A weightless euphoria, heavy and clear, came over me as I flipped around, took Woody’s horns. I skirted to the side and pushed his head toward the ground. I pressed my boot into his neck. He started kicking. All four of his legs swish swish. Hooves inches from my chin. I kept my head back. Tongue straight out, he squirmed and choked out breathy pants. His eyes opened all the way. They were dark, panicked eyes. They bore into me. His belly heaved. The kicks lost their swing. He went limp. By the horns I drug him. His kicking and crying renewed with increased vigor. He knew where he was going. Power surged as I dragged Woody to the cage. Where the power came from, I didn’t know. But now I do. It was the passionate intensity of shame and humiliation.
The other goats were easy. My father and I just grabbed them by the horns, one by one, and dragged them, their hooves screeching. They gave chase, though. Of course they darted for the dark enclosure where they’d been eating and sleeping and otherwise known as home. Round and round we went chasing the wethers, picking them off one by one.
“Yeah!” The Bulgarian shouted.
“Way to go,” my father said, clasping me on the back.
The Bulgarian shook my hand. He shook my father’s hand. He said to me, “Good work.”
The wethers screamed and threw themselves against the walls of the cage. Woody fixed his mirror eyes on me, bell clanked as he flicked his head and grunted. My father said, “Oh yeah,” and slipped into the side door. Woody stood still. My father unfastened the bell and said, “Almost forgot.” The Bulgarian pulled a roll of twenties out his pocketbook, counted out seven hundred dollars. The two men shook hands again, staring deep into each others’ eyes. “We’ll have newborns in the spring,” my father said.
“Spring,” the Bulgarian said, letting go of my father’s hand.
The cage made screeching crash sounds as the truck pulled away, turned onto the macadam road, and disappeared around the bend.
“Now that’s farmin,’” my father said, holding up the cash. My father was happy: happy to be raising goats. How few times I’ve seen my father happy is part of the many things that breaks my heart. How few times we’ve laughed together as we completed simple tasks, like feeding goats, without fighting.
“Yeah,” I said, ready to go back to Seattle.
Matt completed his M.A. in English at Lehigh University in May 2016. He was born and raised in rural Kentucky, lived in West Virginia for his early adulthood, and currently resides in Portland, Oregon, where he teaches reading and writing at Portland Community College. His fiction has been featured in The Hunger, Random Sample Review, and Fluent Magazine.